Swiss sanctuary of a very fair lady


The actress and humanitarian worker Audrey Hepburn, famed for her elegance, charm and kindness, spent the last 30 years of her life in a village near Lausanne.

This content was published on May 19, 2006 - 08:45

In Switzerland she found the peace she sought in order to raise her two sons away from the glare of the Hollywood paparazzi.

Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston was born on May 4, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium. She was the only daughter of an Anglo-Irish banker and a Dutch aristocrat.

Her father, to whom she was very close, left the family when Hepburn was young and she went to live with her mother in Arnhem in the Netherlands.

During the war the area was under German occupation and food and fuel was scarce. Hepburn even resorted to eating tulip bulbs and developed several health problems.

She would later be confronted with hunger again: as special ambassador to the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) she helped impoverished children in the world's poorest nations.

Screen queen

Hepburn was discovered by the 80-year-old French novelist Colette, who cast her in "Gigi", based on her novel about a precocious and carefree young girl growing up in Paris.

The play opened on Broadway in November 1951 and Hepburn won a Theatre World Award for her debut performance.

This success led in 1953 to Hepburn being offered a starring role as a mischievous princess in the classic comedy-romance "Roman Holiday", for which she won her only Oscar.

Leading roles followed in "Sabrina" (1954), "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) and "My Fair Lady" (1964).

Hepburn's performance as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" resulted in one of the most iconic characters in 20th-century American cinema, but she lost out on an Oscar to Sophia Loren (for "Two Women").

Hepburn was admired not only for her acting talent but also for her grace and elegance – having been strikingly dressed by fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Swiss peace

Hepburn's film career peaked in the early Sixties and in 1966 she moved with her family to Tolochenaz, a village near Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva.

She then took a ten-year break from films to be with her husband, American actor Mel Ferrer, and their son, Sean.

Her family meant everything to her. After experiencing deprivation and hunger as a child herself, Hepburn wanted to make sure that her own children never wanted for anything.

There were rumours of affairs on both sides, however, and the couple divorced in 1968.

She then met Italian psychologist Andrea Dotti. A year later they got married in Switzerland but divorced 13 years later. Together they had a son, Luca.

In 1980 she met Dutch actor Robert Wolders, with whom she remained for the rest of her life.


In his 2005 biography, Sean described his mother as a modest woman who valued the peace and security offered by Switzerland, a place where she could lead a normal life.

She could raise her sons away from the showbiz lifestyle of Hollywood, go shopping without being plagued by photographers and chat to the locals in French – one of five languages she could speak.

For the last five years of her life Hepburn went on more than 50 trips for UNICEF to Sudan, El Salvador, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Somalia.

After her death from cancer in 1993, she was interred in Tolochenaz and her sons and Robert Wolders founded the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund, which collects donations for school programmes in Africa.

In 1996 the Audrey Hepburn Pavilion opened in a two-room former schoolhouse in Tolochenaz.

By 2002 the museum had received almost 30,000 visitors from all over the world and had raised nearly SFr400,000 ($276,000) for children's charities.

But in 2002 the actress's sons asked for the return of the exhibits, pointing out that it was agreed that they were on loan to the museum for five years.

Sean complained that the site had been over-commercialised and objected to the sale of, among other things, "Audrey Hepburn homemade jam".

The museum director countered that the Hepburn's sons had approved all commercial activities, adding that all the profits went to charity.

Key facts

1929: Audrey Hepburn is born in Brussels.

1954: She picks up her only Oscar – for "Roman Holiday". She is nominated four other times.

1966: She moves to Tolochenaz, a village near Lausanne.

1993: She dies of cancer and is interred in Tolochenaz.

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